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Interpreting Symbolism in Russian Orthodox Easter Iconography

Easter imagery in Russia, while deeply rooted in ancient Orthodox tradition, over the centuries transformed to incorporate a Western interpretation of the Resurrection, resulting in a unique iconography that reflected Russia's historical role as a spiritual link between the Orthodox East and the Catholic West.       

The Anastasis or Resurrection is one of the most striking images of Russian iconography. Often called the Harrowing of Hades, the image depicts Christ's triumphal descent into the world of the dead to free the trapped souls of the righteous. It symbolically reveals what Orthodox Christians believe to be the spiritual consequence of Christ’s Death and Resurrection.  

The canonical iconography of Anastasis in Russia originates from the 14th century, inspired by late Byzantine art. In the center of the composition, the Savior is depicted breaking forcibly into Hades. He is vested in radiant garments symbolizing his divine majesty and is surrounded by an almond-shaped, star-studded aureole of eternal heavenly light. Christ is striding boldly into the underworld, crushing the scattered gates of hell, illustrating the belief expressed in the Paschal troparion that by his death on the cross, Jesus "trampled down death by death." He is raising the forefather Adam out of Hades, personified in the lower left corner as a great beast with wide-open jaws. The Savior is pulling Adam out by his wrist while Eve, dressed in bright red, is kneeling, waiting her turn. Led by two angels, pious people are standing beside them with joined hands waiting to ascend to Paradise. In some variations, Christ is depicted striking a gagged and a bound figure representing Satan underneath his feet, symbolizing the Savior's victory over death.

By the 17th century, the iconography of Anastasis became more complex, inspired by the Western European engravings illustrating the story of the guarded Tomb found in the Gospel of Matthew (27:61–66). In addition to the image of the Harrowing of Hades that was moved to the lower half of the icon, the upper part of the image shows the Savior soaring above the empty Tomb encircled by angels, sleeping Roman guards, and the Myrrh-bearing women. Surrounding the central images were frequently added smaller vignettes depicting other related biblical events.  

This composite iconography aims to represent two theological interpretations of the Resurrection –the individual Resurrection of Christ and the universal Resurrection and redemption of all of humanity from the corporeal captivity by the forces of Hades.